It starts on their first date: a Thai restaurant socketed into a quaint nook on a narrow street in an otherwise expansive city. Within minutes of ordering, he says to himself: “She is the one. This is love.” And then, when she gets up to use the restroom, he reaches across the table and, against his better judgment, filches the scarf she left draped over her chair and shoves it up his coat sleeve.
Six months later, they marry. For their honeymoon, they go to British Columbia, tour the coast. Twenty-nine-years-old, both of them, and just irrationally crazy about each other. Her red hair, stately nose, the swan-like arc of her neck drive him mad. And his bookish blue eyes, his close-kept beard, the wire glasses, it all gives her reason, for the first time in her life, to use words like “longing” without irony. But so it goes with love: The inevitable shearing of emotional complexity down to the elemental. For instance, he likes, most of all, to watch her breathe, once she has fallen asleep after sex, especially if it’s raining. And she, for her part, says: “You are my everything.” Not that the pinnacle of all human feeling has ever yielded original sensibilities.
But back to the drama, to the word made flesh. It’s the last night of their honeymoon, at a bed and breakfast tucked into some coastal cove, and he is asleep. She, still awake, sits in a chair by the window taking in a view, the sea-stacks picketing absurdly from the Pacific, the basalt formations whittled by wave and wind into what, she swears, resemble the molars of old men capped white with the shit of gulls. It’s now that she remembers her scarf. Not that she ever really forgot. Rather, what she had been doing these months was waiting, and waiting, for the right moment. Here is that moment.
She takes his shoes, hides them in her bag, and the next morning it is a laugh riot, watching him search under, in, and around practically everything. He is convinced, at first, that he is losing it, that he has finally gone off his rocker—love will do that to you—but then he glances at her sitting by the window, staring out there as if absorbed, and he understands what has transpired. So, this is how it is going to be, he thinks. This is love.
Time passes. It always does. They move to another city, get a house on a hill, make some friends, read the Sunday paper, consider kids, decide against it—they have each other and isn’t that enough?—get jobs (she teaches at the university and he works in software development), go to parties, the beach, invest in kitchen appliances, and say things to each other like: “I want you inside of me,” “I want to be inside of you,” and “Let’s stay in tonight and watch a movie.” They could not be happier.
Two years of this, then one evening they’re eating dinner, and it occurs to her that she has left behind a stack of papers at work, on campus. She quickly finishes her salad, says she’ll be right back, and then departs the scene of their domesticity, leaving him alone. From the dining room table, he can see her through the French doors as she gets into her car. What a sight his wife is. Watching her, he drums his fingers on the kitchen table and troubles over the word “love.” Once her taillights disappear, he stands and goes into their bedroom.
He opens their walk-in closet. He must act fast, she will be back soon. To the right are his clothes. To the left, hers. The familiar feel of dresses and blouses on his fingers gives rise to a rush of contentment that, over time, has become so familiar that its sudden articulation leaves him breathless. Then he arrives at her favorite dress. Its deeply scooped back and thin, black straps recall for him not her familiarity, but its opposite, how, still, on those occasions when, say, he catches sight of her walking across a room during a party, her hair pinned up and her lips lightly limned with a deep red, there is the feeling that he does not know her at all, and that love, rather than forged by a connection between two people, is something built upon an insurmountable fissure that widens and widens with every attempt to bridge it, until it is filled with all the world’s want. He takes the dress off the hanger.
Inevitably, she realizes that her favorite dress is gone. At first, she smiles. Indications of love are always wonderful surprises, however obtuse. But then, to her surprise, she frowns and feels…what exactly? Mild irritation? We are talking here, after all, about her favorite dress. As we know, clothes wear us and not the other way around, thus this loss leaves her with the departure of a very small part of herself. Furthermore, she was planning to wear it to that thing tonight with the speaker and banquet after. She walks out into the front room, finds her husband sitting in a chair, looking out a window, and says to him: “Have you seen my dress?”
“Dress?” The couple watch each other and the atmosphere bristles with a certain current, a certain charge, a certain violence.
“It must be at the dry cleaners,” she says, and touches his hand.
“Must be,” he agrees.
So, this is how it will be, she thinks. This is love. She slips on her second-favorite dress, and out they go, into an autumn night, to the dinner, to the banquet, to spend an evening together, hand and hand.
Three more months go by in a flash of fall color. Winter arrives, routines commence, and the snow begins.
She takes his laptop.
Now, understand, he has files and codes and passwords, information that he needs, the whole digital skeleton of the self, stored therein. What happened was this: He leaves it in the den, where he often works in the evening, but when he goes in there the next morning to retrieve it, he finds it missing. He stands there bundled in his coat, thinking, “Really? This?”
In the front room, she pours him coffee. He never calls her “Darling,” but now as he looks at his wife he delivers the word with it an edge of sarcasm sharp enough to startle them both. “Darling,” he says. “You haven’t seen my computer, by chance, because I swore I left it…”
“Why would I know where your computer is? It is your computer, darling, not mine.”
He takes a sip of his coffee. “See, the thing is…” but then he stops himself. How to accuse her of this after everything? Or, more to the point, with what words to reach for questions like: “Is this love?” So, he scratches his head. “You know, I bet I left it at work.”
As if to congratulate his insight, she raises his cup toward him: “I bet you did.”
The train ride to work is short. Storefronts and people and cars caracole by while he says to himself, as if his wife lived up there in his head among all that other mental furniture, “Where do we go from here?” Then he disembarks the train in that ceaseless current of humanity and, for the first time since he can remember, the world looks a little sad.
But then summer comes, and with it all that life outside—birds and bees and spiders and squirrels all trying to make their claim on the world. How vulgar it is, nature’s presumptuousness, grabbing at this and that. He cannot resist it, however. Who can? And so, he opens the windows in the front room and invites it in.
His wife is gone. Germany for three months, working on this or that as well as research on Nietzsche. His Will to Power was of particular interest to her these days, and she set out to write a book about its manifestations, its relationships to reason and unreason, and as the great counter argument to Darwin.
Today is the second week of her absence, and he makes a phone call to the Salvation Army. To the young woman on the other end, he says that he has a bed he would like to donate. If someone would come pick it up, it was theirs. “It’s a good bed,” he adds.
Later that afternoon, two men knock on his door, their Salvation Army truck just outside the window. He leads them to the guest bedroom. For more than three years now this room has doubled as his wife’s bedroom, her office, her sanctuary. It wasn’t that they didn’t like sleeping together. They did, but his wife suffered from restless leg syndrome, which kept him awake. When it got bad, her restlessness, she would retire to the other room. From there it became an unspoken agreement that it was her private space, and that this was a thing he should respect.
He points to the bed, says to the two men, “It’s all yours.”
While they load the mattress and haul it away, he goes into his study and reads.
His wife returns. He prepares a dinner of silver salmon, white wine, risotto, a spinach salad with the candied walnuts that she likes. The happiness he feels upon her arrival is unbearable. When she walked in the door, he had held her and whispered into her ear: “Do not ever leave me again.”
She stroked his head and cheek as if he were a child.
“Never,” she said.
They eat, fuck, and then later it rains—one of those summer storms swinging in from the south and bringing with it the smell of hibiscus. It’s the sound of thunder rolling across the bay that wakes her much later. She can’t fall back asleep. Her legs start doing that thing. Restless restless restless they are, and she bears it for over an hour, laying there, watching the breathing of her husband, this man she had taken into her life some years ago, and thinking of a thing she had once thought, in college, in a class about human sexuality, which was this: desire is the want to lose yourself in someone else, but to lose yourself means you no longer have a self to want to lose and thus there goes desire, out the window, at which point we move on to someone new with whom the cycle begins again. And then she wonders if Nietzsche, in all his intellectual contortions, was pointing toward this exact thing, though in a different guise, suggesting that The Will to Power at its most pronounced is a will to powerlessness, self-annihilation, renunciation, precisely because forsaking power is the last great gesture toward power.
She does not know, but now her head is spinning. In the kitchen she prepares some tea, digs her book from her bag, slips into her robe and, upon entering her other room, finds her bed missing. She hardly bats an eye. She takes a bath instead, watches the storm, listens to the rain, and then, once tired, she curls next to her husband and falls asleep. But the next morning the world looks different, as it often does, and whatever insight had left her feeling content when she fell asleep is no longer there.
When he wakes an hour later, he finds her in the kitchen. As is his Sunday routine, he kisses her, has a cup of coffee and then goes into the garage where he will get into his car and drive to the store for the Sunday Times.
His car is not there.
He walks back into the house, looks at his wife, who is as beautiful as ever, and when she turns to him, her red hair catches in the sun. She says: “Everything okay?”
He stretches and yawns. “It’s so nice out. I think I’ll walk instead.” It goes without saying that the car is never to be seen again.
So, this is how it is for them. This is love. This is who they are.
Years pass. They have good times and bad. His hair goes gray. Hers white. They hold each other through the deaths of their parents, they are there for each other through successes and failures—the publication of her book and the lukewarm reviews that follow, his promotions and the blunders he makes managing their money—little things, big things, but all the while they continue loving each other in the only way that they know how. He takes her car, she his grandpa’s wooden chest, he her journals and books, she his collection of scotch, until, slowly, appliances and clothes and all that is familiar in their home begins to evaporate.
Then comes another New Years, and the spirit of resolution is upon him. He figures, maybe, just maybe, now is the time. He sits her down on the couch. He reaches for the right words, the way to set this right. He starts. He stops. He finds the wrong words, the wrongs phrases, and starts again.
“Listen,” he says. He must make it quick, they are already running late for the party.
She waits, listening.
“Maybe we settle this?”
She shakes her head: “Settle what?”
He shakes his head, too. “Really, this is how you want it to be?”
“What?” she laughs. “Would you rather it be some other way?”
“I’m serious,” he says, and he is. He is very, very serious.
But she is serious, too, for the one thing they both know is that love is a very serious thing, not a game, not a movie or a novel or a story or even a parable with a sweeping metaphor to indicate that, yes, this, here, is love. So serious is love, in fact, that it leaves them both speechless while they sit there on the couch—it is the only thing left in the house—to gaze upon each other, he in his underwear—all that is left of his clothes—and she in a pair of tights but otherwise naked.
“Well,” she says, “We’re late. We should go.”
She stands and he reaches for her hand. “Darling?” His voice is the voice of all the want in the world and the longing is enough to surprise them both. “We have each other, right?”
She smiles. “I suppose we do?” She doesn’t mean it to sound like a question, but sure enough it is, and it fills the house with warmth.